The things we all do for our love of whisky. Here I am, at some godforsaken hour, waiting on a shuttle bus to Edinburgh airport to then go to a whisky festival. The one called The Gathering, which is the best festival in my humble opinion on the international circuit today. Where do you envisage this festival is? Not anywhere in Scotland unfortunately, nor following the corporate bias to London, but Rotterdam of all places.
It underlines the international appeal of whisky today and the passion that many of you have across the world for this liquid that heralded from Scotland, then Ireland and has fanned out to distilleries across the globe. I jest about the origins but it underlines the widespread passion and interest we have in this product of water, barley, yeast and wood. A simple, if increasingly expensive pleasure that unifies us all.
This is my third year on the bounce attending and rather than just do a summary of events, as I’ve done in previous years such as in 2018, or 2017. I wanted to capture more of the atmosphere and appeal. After all, when confirming my attendance for the 2019 incarnation, a Whiskybase director suggested I bring myself and less of MALT. So this time around expect more of a travelogue and antics and fun; lacking that Fear & Loathing element, but dosed in fine juice at every opportunity.
The wonders of modern technology came home to roost in Edinburgh airport before our departure. Check-in online in advance and then you’ll just have to use the bag drop to deposit that suitcase, brimming full of whisky (and Tunnock’s tea cakes) for your Dutch friends. Except, we’ll just close the bag drop facility and make everyone pile into check-in as normal; interesting decision during the school break.
Needless to say, spare time to peruse the delights of travel retail was seriously eroded. In fact, there was only time to grab some Irn Bru for the weekend festivities and then line-up for the KLM flight. However, I did manage a quick glance at the selection on my way through the concourse. Has there ever been a more limp and decaying selection of whiskies that now cluster together in search of sanctuary, than travel retail today? Ok, the current Jura range is still the daddy, but as I said to someone in passing; I’d rather buy 50cl of something good, than a very average or overpriced whisky in a 100cl bottle.
Arriving in Schiphol, our motley crew started to form. Just prior to this we had the opportunity to converge with the Waterford trio, who were over to give 2 tastings during the Gathering. This was a rare sighting of Tweedlord and myself together, but the chat wasn’t about MALT (it rarely is in all honesty), instead some banter and chatter about the weekend ahead. We split while we awaited the arrival of the King of Fife via his private jet; hearing about his latest experience of Edinburgh airport before we boarded an express train to Rotterdam central.
Reaching the Gathering venue is simple. 25 minutes or so later you’re off the train and heading to the metro and a few stops later you’re at Maashaven station. The whole trip will set you back around 21 euros depending on where your hotel is location. I always go for the Art House hotel which is beside the venue and metro station. Don’t expect anything lavish, as it is purely function and the district behind the hotel isn’t one for walking around at night. However, it performs a role and for convenience alone it’s worth considering. Before we get into the events, let’s deal with the obligatory festival release.
Whiskybase Ben Nevis 1996 Gathering 2019 – review
A 22-year-old distilled on 25th October 1996, bottled at 50.6% strength with an outturn of 231 bottles from a hogshead.
Color: light sand.
On the nose: lots of fruit with sliced apples, peaches, pears and a sweet cinnamon. Caster sugar, vanilla and a sense of a clean Ben Nevis. Then there’s limescale, white chocolate, silver needle tea and almonds.
In the mouth: a burst of fruit bowl sweetness moves into spices including white pepper and a creamy vanilla. The finish is grapefuit and boiled sweets and rock candy.
A very drinkable Ben Nevis, perhaps a touch too clean for some who like that dirty aspect that the best examples give us. However, for 145 in funny European money; a quaffable whisky any time of the day. This bottle went on sale, on the Saturday morning of the festival, but we mustn’t forget the Friday opening events. These pre-festival events, for some, represent the pinnacle of the Gathering and why it is really the one and only whisky gathering. Unlike the UK SMWS attempt earlier this year which floundered for a variety of reasons. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so let’s see how it is truly done…
After checking into the familiar confines of the Art Hotel; peppered with the background noise of ongoing refurbishment, it was time to head out to the opening dinner. This represents the only downtime we had outside of whisky to explore Rotterdam partially. A regretful fact, as the city is a stylish construct of Dutch themes and European vibes; enticing and awaiting discovery. The bric-a-brac nature of the buildings dotted around the waterfronts prompted much discussion as we crossed bridges and discussed our choices for the bring your own post-dinner event.
The dinner tasting is a guaranteed sell out each year and features an assortment of whiskies with a theme from the Whiskybase team. On this occasion it was Blackadder from an era when great casks and famous names were plentiful including Banff and Port Ellen. Such days are sadly no more, but thankfully, we can revisit them with such bottles that were served up that evening.
The whiskies were accompanied by local food – which this year – was tremendous and the best that I’ve had in 3 sittings. A remarkable meal with sharing dishes and memorable whiskies. It’s an intoxicating mixture. However, as wonderful as the event is, the real gem is the bring your own that immediately follows. Again, ticketed, but free of charge. The only stipulation is that you bring a bottle and share with anyone that asks. If you followed an attendee on Instagram, then you would have seen a parade of bottles normally unopened on the auction merry-go-round. Bottles that you’ve never seen before, or only heard about in hushed tones. Old faithful’s, new friends and new discoveries. It sets a wonderful tone for the weekend ahead.
Those that sat around my table, with the exception of one (hi Michael), were new to the event. Stalwarts of UK festivals and the Whisky Exchange shows. They were mesmerised and stunned by the generosity and welcome of total strangers. Travellers from across the world, united by a love of whisky. Andy, took photographs of each bottle he tried that evening and the final tally was 28. In reality, this barely touched the sides of what was on offer. You could have normal measures, or a mere sip. Water was replenished and we collectively ventured into the early hours before vanishing into the streets of Rotterdam, to meet once again.
The following morning, the big event arrived. Saturday was a sell-out and the area around the venue was a hive of activity. Vendors presiding over an array of bottles that rightly, attracted enthusiasts from across the world to this port city. Whilst the day felt busy, there was still ample room to navigate and seek a quiet corner with a whisky and explore. The newbies seemed starstruck by the range of choice, supplemented this year by a handful of new stalls including from Japan.
It must seem odd, to travel so far and to spend so little space here talking about the actual event itself. The aforementioned articles do the Gathering justice and there isn’t any point going over old ground. In summary; an amazing array of whiskies, good measures and priced for all appetites. Wrapped up in the enthusiastic charm that the Whiskybase team bring to the format. It is a winning combination, supplemented annually by a series of tastings that are worth attending.
For Saturday, we skipped the Waterford tasting and instead took on the battle of Italy versus Scotland, or Enrico against Angus. Italy tried to charm the audience with a selection of local delicacies whilst Angus served up the knockout combination of Irn Bru and Tunnocks caramel wafers. As much as I enjoy the finer things in life, nothing compares to an Irn Bru; some of which ended up in my hotel fridge later that day. Delightful, as was the tasting, which was held in good spirits and camaraderie. The winner by a margin was Angus, although the true winners were those within the room and the whiskies.
For the record, we had a 1973 Longmorn from Samaroli, Bunnahabhain 1979 Moon Import, 1974 Caol Ila from Wilson Morgan, a 1966 Glenlivet from the SMWS, a 1975 Highland Park from Adelphi and a 1978 Signatory Port Ellen. A fine assortment you’ll agree and for you, here’s what I thought of the Glenlivet…
SMWS Glenlivet 1966 – review
Distilled in November 1966, this was bottled in February 2002 at 35 years of age. The strength even at this age is a ridiculous 68.6% – I’d love to see what nonsensical name the SMWS would foster upon this bottle today.
Color: dark toffee.
On the nose: a tinge of alcohol at best but no burn. Candied orange peel, fudge, rum-like with brown sugar, Brasso and treacle. Rusty nails, golden syrup all provide a metallic vibe. Earthy, Lapsang souchong, fresh varnish, resin, red apples and coconut ice. Used tobacco, blackcurrants, dried fruits and flat cola.
In the mouth: bang! Sheer power, but balance with more rum-like characteristics, treacle, butterscotch and sticky toffee pudding. Walnuts, almost a scorched aspect with burnt orange? Figs, dark fruits, chocolate and a gorgeous intensity. Water will have an effect, but I was too busy enjoying it at cask strength.
We often forget about the Glenlivet and its former reputation. In many ways, it was the catalyst for the whole Speyside region. The spark that ignited the fire, that still burns today. Except the distillery itself has become a behemoth of quantity over quality. Whiskies such as these demonstrate what once was for the distillery and members of the SMWS. Sadly, both today, are pale imitations of themselves.
Chucking out time at the festival should, in theory, draw a line under the events for that day. However, it marked another escapade into central Rotterdam via the hotel. Arriving a little too early for another bring your own event, we detoured to a nearby restaurant to experience the slowest service known to mankind. Only those present could truly appreciate and fathom the laid-back nature of the dining experience. A life sentence that was doubled, when we were joined by a late arrival who insisted on something quick from the kitchen that turned out to be anything but. And we won’t mention the ginger tea that drew a line under what was a bizarre experience.
This bring your own evening was an open house affair. This entailed more bottles alongside a huge selection of local beers and street food. Groups of tables became – dare I say it – cluttered with whiskies and a merry-go-round ensued, if you wanted to pursue more whisky knowledge. After the excesses of the previous evening (and early morning), topped up with a full day at the festival. We made our excuses early and departed, which was a shame, as Bimber was in the house and a good chat is overdue. As such, it proved to be a wise decision and our group felt revitalised for the final day ahead.
The final day at the Gathering, is a more relaxed and genteel affair. The pacing is more leisurely, you feel that you have the freedom of the place to navigate the halls with ease, or spend excessive amounts of time in the tasty foodhall. Eating Dutch meats and cheese, delicious Mediterranean wraps, or one of best burgers you’ve ever had. This isn’t Rare & Old canteen food; this is the Gathering food. Accompanied by some live DJ’s playing Dutch freeform jazz its worth the entry fee alone. This is an ideal day to pick off whiskies that you marked on Saturday; the unicorns, the grapevine and recommendations from the vendors. Freedom is the key word, as I had several chats with the vendors about their bottles and personal favourites.
The group dispersed for the tastings that day, as we kicked off with an event hosted by the legend that is Michiel Wigman. Knowledgeable, approachable and kind hearted, it’s the little touches that stick in the memory. Such as shaking hands with every attendee as they walked into the room. Michiel is passionate about whisky and regaled tales of bygone bottles and his personal experiences. The cold, stark and ruthless realisation that even he cannot afford some of the bottles nowadays. This doesn’t stop him from opening new gems for his stand, even if it is the last example within his collection.
A memorable, leisurely, stroll through the past, which we caught briefly for our IGTV channel. A very different pacing and relaxed vibe compared to most tastings that you’ll experience with such a line-up as this. I found this whole experience very refreshing, as all too often such events are stuffy and pretentious. An hour in Michiel’s company, is as memorable as the whiskies he serves up.
A return to the food hall was in order, before we then decided to hit the stalls once and for all. What commenced was a marathon across the decades, littered with old bottles from Gordon & MacPhail, Cadenhead dumpies and a surprising selection from North America including a dusty Turkey. For the last hour we resided at the Maltstock selection working our way through a Lochside vertical.
Prior to this, picking out highlights is difficult. So many whiskies were consumed, but I enjoyed the Wild Turkey, a Cadenhead’s Auchroisk dumpy and a Signatory Millburn. I also walked away with samples to bring you more reviews in the coming months from some unlikely sources.
Before our last mad scramble through all things Lochside, we were invited by Tweed to the tail end of the last Waterford tasting. We entered the room to the sound of the countryside, which offered a stark contrast to the industrial concreted structure we had spent most of the weekend within.
We did stream the end of the Waterford tasting live on Instagram, so unfortunately there’s no footage here. Ned was doing a grand job working the audience and I’ll say Mark does operate a slick slideshow presentation – I’ve given him a kick to update our About Us page. But you won’t be bothered about any of this in reality, will you? It is all about the whisky, or whiskey, and quite right too.
So, as a treat, we’re going to give you a review of a Waterford cask. The funky one that they kept until the end of the tasting. The one that divided opinion. It seems the most likely candidate, as its fun and not representative of what’s coming, I’m sure. Given the fact that its from a wild cherry cask, with over a 3rd of the contents have been lost already. Meaning, we won’t be seeing this again in all likelihood and a fitting end to our Gathering experience. Such casks are very rare and my only previous exposure to cherry was via smoke; Sonoma Distilling Co. Cherrywood Smoked Bourbon.
Cask #16445 was filled on 21st May 2018, making the spirit age at the time of the event 505 days old. The farm is Peter Kehoe’s Heathpark in Countyoostie water. Wexford and the variety used is Olympus 2017. The strength is a robust 68.67% and I know from a small taste during the event, that this is a funky proposition and a bit of fun.
Waterford Wild Cherry cask 2018- review
Color: dried straw.
On the nose: just bloody odd and off-putting for many. Like being tangled in a holly bush with elements of sweetness, floral, savoury and earthiness. In fact there’s a strong garden vibe. Fennel, pine sap, petrichor and red berries beneath the foilage. Then, tarragon, mace and what I can only summarise as foostie water.
In the mouth: surprisingly drinkable at 68% and it has plenty to say. A sense of sweet wood, some cherries of course but more cranberry with a festering of dryness. Earthiness persists throughout the palate and an enjoyable mouthfeel is apparent. Ripe apple and white grapes underline the sugary sweetness that this whisky offers. More pine sap, chalk and malted red wine vinegar on the finish. Utterly bonkers, which is part of its charm.
The most of ridiculous set of tasting notes I’ll formulate until the next Jura. It’s a dram that is totally left wing complete with some bizarre marching routine and rhetoric. For some too far off the map, but that’s where I reside and I found it fun nevertheless and challenging. Unfortunately, this wacky example won’t be anywhere near the debut Waterford release; after all they have units to shift and a larger market to target.
Interestingly, I caught the opinion of a few attendees that I knew at the Waterford tastings over the weekend. Generally they were positive and acceptingly lukewarm. Some opinions about age and not being ready, which you’d expect at an event with some fantastically matured whiskies doing the rounds. More telling, were the comments around certain cask types erasing the terroir; they wanted to taste the farms and the difference rather than the wood. Food, or more likely, whisky for thought.
Bimber for many, has set a high standard in 2019 and with more distilleries to follow in 2020, including Waterford. It is going to be an extremely competitive field. Branding and marketing will only take you so far and we’ll do our best to bring you these new distilleries as and when.
Rounding off the weekend was? Yes, you’ve guessed it! Another meet where the hardcore attendees hung out and ate more local street food. Some of the Gathering team turned up to receive well deserved plaudits for a fantastic weekend. We ate, drank and talked for a few hours, before departing on our merry way to the far corners of the globe.
A fantastic few days centred around whisky, great food and friendship. That’s what this Gathering is all about.